Wheel Horse Collectors Group Off and Running

The first-ever Wheel Horse collectors show was held in southern Pennsylvania

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A trio of historic tractors at the first-ever Wheel Horse Show. Center: a 1954 Wheel Horse Ride Away, which owner Dan Messinger, East Berlin, Penn., found in North Carolina. At left: Mary Pence of Houston, Ohio, on her 1947 Pond. At right: Joe Papke, White Pigeon, Mich., on his 1947 Pond, which he's owned for 30 years. The Ponds - forerunners of the Wheel Horse - were made by Elmer Pond, who constructed them from spare parts, including Ford Model A transmissions and a lot of channel iron. They had tiller steering, no hoods or brakes, and were powered by Wisconsin gasoline engines.

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First-ever Wheel Horse show: It all started with the Internet.

Well, not quite. But most tractor owners at the Wheel Horse show held in southern Pennsylvania in June agreed that the magic of online communication was the driving force behind the event.

"This is the second year we've done this," said Don Kane, a longtime Wheel Horse enthusiast. "We decided it would be nice to get together, and we were going to have it at our house, but we were able to use the South Mountain Fairgrounds here at Arendtsville. My father was a Wheel Horse dealer in the '60s and '70s, so I grew up with them. My son Jeff got interested and we restored a couple of tractors together. He had a website on the Internet and this brought people together. This is actually the first exclusive Wheel Horse meet."

Don, who was born and raised and still lives in Biglerville, Perm., is a project engineer with Pfaltzgraff, the country's oldest pottery manufacturer. He is also the first president of the newly formed Wheel Horse Collectors Club, elected during an organizational meeting held at the two-day show. A dozen of the Kane family's collection of Wheel Horses ranging from a 1957 RJ 35 through a 1963 33-R and a 1967 Lawn Ranger L107 to a 1976 D-160 were on display at the fairgrounds for visitors to admire and enjoy.

One of the many Wheel Horse fans who traveled a long distance to attend the show was Eric Van Loock of Mobile, Ala. Eric, a 28-year-old pre-law student at the University of South Alabama, had his first encounter with a Wheel Horse when he was barely more than a toddler.

"My grandfather had a Wheel Horse, and I used to ride with him when I was about 3 or 4," he said. "When he got sick a few years ago, I started fixing it up and I got hooked. The Internet caused the explosion. I've learned about Wheel Horses by listening and doing research. The story is that the horse closest to the wagon wheel does the most work. Wheel Horse symbolizes strength and reliability."

Wheel Horse origins trace to the "Ride Away" tractor

Eric's research unearthed information on the early development of the Wheel Horse in South Bend, Ind., in the 1940s. It seems that Elmer Pond, a construction worker in South Bend, had been helping his brother Harold, who was building small two-wheel Walk Away tractors from auto and motorcycle parts. Following World War II, Elmer assembled some of the tractors in his two-car garage and sold them in the neighborhood.

"Sometime in 1946 Elmer started making his own version of the Walk Away with several attachments," Eric said. "In 1947 he made a four-wheel tractor or ‘Ride Away.' It had no hood, no brakes, and tiller steering. In 1948 they added a fiberglass hood and a steering wheel. This model would have been for a guy who had a truck patch. It had a plow, a harrow, a front blade and a disc. They made these from 1949 to 1955. In 1956 they stopped making the larger tractors because the small ones were so successful. The tractors that really made Wheel Horse were the RJ 58 and RJ 59, made in the late '50s. They had a three-speed transmission, which made them more useful, and it was priced at about $300. People could use them in their gardens."

The tractors were powered by Wisconsin engines, or by Briggs & Stratton gasoline engines, in the 2 to 3 hp range. Later models were powered by Clinton and Kohler engines. From the beginning, Wheel Horse tractors had optional attachments: sickle bars, blades, snow throwers, cultivators, disks, plows, tillers and cultivators.

During the 1960s, Wheel Horse changed locations twice in South Bend. In 1974 American Motors purchased the company. In the early 1980s it was sold to an investment group, which in turn sold it to Toro in 1986.

Joe Papke of White Pigeon, Mich., brought one of Elmer Pond's Ride Aways to the show.

"I've had it 30 years," he said. "There's very little documentation and no two are alike – they're all different. They were made from parts and maybe were manufactured only one year. I'm a Wheel Horse collector interested in 1961 and older."

Mary Pence of Houston, Ohio, has a Pond Ride Away she says is the same as Joe's but about three months younger.

"Mr. Pond didn't put numbers on them," she said. "We go by the serial number on the motor. We know they were built in 1947. They have a Model A (Ford) transmission and rear end."

Roy Stewardson and his wife Betty traveled from Forest, Ontario, to take part in the show. They brought four fully-restored Wheel Horses with them, including a 1957 RJ 35.

"I've been a Wheel Horse owner since 1964," Roy said. "About three years ago I made a mistake and bought a 1971 Charger, took it home and restored it. I had retired – I had owned my own body shop and my son took it over. I have 20 restored tractors and did all the restoration. It takes about four to six weeks to do one. To get parts I go to shows and I also use the Internet. The Wheel Horse is popular in Canada but I've never seen so many Wheel Horses in one place as they have here."

Unique and rare Wheel Horse relics

Jason Johnson brought his wife Sue, her parents, Doug and Barbara Goth, and a trailer full of Wheel Horse goodies all the way from St. Michael, Minn. His treasures included a Wheel Horse snowmobile. Jason, who has been elected vice president of the Wheel Horse Collectors Club, said Wheel Horse made snowmobiles in Des Moines, Iowa, between 1969 and 1971.

"There aren't many of them," he said. "The company was called SnowFlite and Wheel Horse bought it in the late '60s. There's a few out there in Minnesota. This one was sold at Lyles Outdoor Power at Corcoran, Mont., to Frank Meister, who sold it to Dave Gruba about five years ago. I bought it from him last summer. I am going to restore it."

Jason worked at a Wheel Horse dealership for 12 years and said he has always liked the sturdy tractors. He has done a lot of reading and has surfed the net for information on all aspects of Wheel Horse culture.

"I soon realized there were other people out there who were bit by the ‘Horse,'" he said.

Wayne Lowry of Greencastle, Penn., is another Wheel Horse buff who checks the Internet for information on his favorite hobby. The distinctive green paint on the unrestored 1965 1055 Wheel Horse he brought to the show makes it stand out in a crowd of traditionally red tractors.

"I guess someone had some green paint," he said. "I've seen them blue. I've only had this one a couple of months. I've been restoring for three years and I've got seven tractors at home. Someone told me about this show. Meeting the different people is so interesting. I get on the Internet to look for stuff. I've finished two tractors and I'm working on three more. I get parts from the Toro dealer or from local junkyards."

Ed Mayhew of Gaithersburg, Md., happens to own a blue Wheel Horse 1967 Lawn Ranger, which he brought to the show along with a 1963 633 and a 1968 Charger 10. He bought it from his father, who sold tractors in Lynchburg, Va.

"I just picked up the hobby three or four years ago," he said. "I bought a Wheel Horse at the Carlisle (Penn.) auto show. Small tractors seem to be getting more popular. It's the same as farm tractors – they have a purpose. They're very manageable and it's fun to do. You can just stick them in a pickup. I heard about the show through the Internet antique tractor resource page. I like to look at other people's stuff, and it's great to meet the people face to face you've been talking to on the net."

Just Wheel Horse

There's no doubt about it. The first show held exclusively for Wheel Horses was a rousing success. Seventy exhibitors brought 132 tractors and many items to the show for horse-trading. This compares with 20 exhibitors and 40 tractors at last year's informal gathering.

"I was amazed at the amount of enthusiasm there was for the show, and the distance that some of the people traveled," said president Don Kane. "It seems like people were just waiting for this particular kind of show to happen. It just needed for someone to get it started. I've never met a nicer group of people – everyone is so willing to help and get involved. I truly believe that everyone who attended had a great time, especially me!" FC

For more information: The Wheel Horse Collectors Club, care of Nancy Mayhew, membership manager, 8656 Welbeck Way, Montgomery Village, MD 20886; e-mail: carsnthrds@aol.com; www.wheelhorsecollectorsclub.org. 

Jill Tennis is a freelance writer living in Damascus, Md. She is interested in writing about communities, their people and history.